A Call for Nuance: Thinking About the War in Gaza

Editor’s Note: This essay was written in mid-March 2024 and thus does not mention or address subsequent events.

Divided Roots

I grew up in Jerusalem, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was my lived reality. My childhood was marked by suicide bombings on buses and in cafes during the Second Intifada. I distinctly remember the periodic ominous sound of many emergency vehicle sirens blaring, signaling that yet another attack had occurred before it even hit the news. One of the buses involved was the same line I took to yeshivah every day. Violent riots on the Temple Mount were a regular occurrence — I was once caught in the midst of one while praying at the Western Wall as a kid.

The profound animosity between both sides of the conflict was a palpable daily presence; the air was thick with it. The Muslim Quarter was a two-minute walk from our home in the Old City’s Jewish Quarter, yet it felt worlds apart. Jews were occasionally targeted by Arabs while walking through the market in the Muslim Quarter, and Arabs were routinely harassed and questioned by Israeli security forces. Reflecting on it now, I’m amazed at how ordinary this state of constant conflict and tension seemed. Only after relocating to the United States in my early 20s did I realize how abnormal this was.

At age 19, I enlisted in the Givati Infantry Brigade’s elite Reconnaissance Unit of the IDF (Israeli Defense Forces) for my three years of mandatory military service. I was on my way out of Orthodox Judaism and serving in the military was my ticket into broader Israeli society. This, too, felt completely normal. Of course, it was normal for a college-aged kid to spend 14 months training in advanced military tactics. After all, this was what everyone was doing! It seemed cool.

It took losing a friend in battle for me to fully internalize the seriousness of being a combat soldier. My former platoon took part in the invasion of Gaza during “Operation Protective Edge” in 2014. Liel Gidoni, a dear friend with whom I had trained for over a year, was killed when Hamas breached a ceasefire. I will never forget the heart-wrenching sound of his mother wailing during his funeral.

Oct. 7

 The devastating events of Oct. 7 shook me to my core. I found myself stunned, struggling to come to terms with the enormity of what had happened. I was particularly crushed by the attack on the Nova music festival in southern Israel early on that Saturday, which left 364 dead and many more wounded and traumatized. I had regularly attended similar music festivals in my early 20s and was deeply enmeshed in Israeli festival culture. I know the dress, the lingo, the psychedelics and the music intimately. The festival world was a defining part of my coming of age, making the attack on the Nova festival all the more devastating to me. I could vividly imagine myself at that festival had it taken place a decade ago. My next-door neighbor growing up, David Newman, was among those murdered at the festival. Yonatan Tzur, a high-ranking commander for whom I served as a personal driver for several months during my service, was killed while defending an overrun town. I later found out that Avihu Mori, a cheerful comrade I spent the last six months of my service with, was killed several weeks after the war broke out. He had been struggling with PTSD for years; he wandered into Gaza by foot shortly after the ground invasion began and was struck by an Israeli drone.

Learning of the endless horrifying details of those dark October days, my heart broke over and over again. In the weeks that followed, I was in a daze. The dichotomy of feeling deeply invested in what was happening in Israel, on the one hand, and continuing with my normal life in California, on the other, was surreal. I wanted to stop random people on the street and shout, “Do you understand what just happened?” At times, the pain felt like too much to handle. How could this happen? How are people capable of this level of cruelty? For whatever reason, my grief did not turn to anger. Just pain, pain and more pain. I was tired of crying, I was tired of feeling. Parts of me wanted to shut down, to escape the pain in any way possible. Despite the agony, I worked to resist becoming numb. My contribution was going to be keeping my heart open to the best of my ability, brutal as it may be.

The Allure of Binary Thinking

 Since the attack, I have been disheartened by the black-and-white narratives surrounding the war. In the two worlds I know well, I constantly encounter simplistic narratives framed as battles between good and evil, leaving little room for nuance.

The response by portions of the progressive left in the United States has been astonishing. As a graduate of the University of California, Berkeley, I’m no stranger to woke identity politics. Still, nothing could have prepared me for the sheer moral confusion on display in the weeks and months following the attack. Huge crowds gathered for pro-Palestinian rallies on campuses and in the streets of major American cities, while bodies were still being discovered and identified in Israel. It was not long before several student organizations at Harvard University circulated an open letter stating that Israel is “entirely responsible for all unfolding violence.”[1] (These are the same students who decry the use of incorrect pronouns as an “act of violence.”) Hyperbolic accusations of “genocide” and “ethnic cleansing” in response to the IDF ground operation are commonplace. In a now infamous congressional hearing, the presidents (at the time) of Harvard, the University of Pennsylvania and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, failed to unequivocally condemn the alarming increase of blatant antisemitism on campus following Oct. 7. My jaw was on the floor watching the presidents cite freedom of speech in their response to being asked whether calling for the genocide of Jews on campus violates their schools’ codes of conduct. These institutions routinely suppress and penalize even the smallest deviations from woke orthodoxy.[2] Harvard and Penn have ranked dead-last in FIRE’s (Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression) annual free-speech rankings, with an “abysmal” speech climate.[3]

The Harvard student organizations that circulated an open letter stating that Israel is “entirely responsible for all unfolding violence” often decry the use of incorrect pronouns as an “act of violence.”

What’s on display is the inevitable absurdity of a worldview that categorizes all interactions strictly in terms of oppressors and oppressed. In this case, Israelis are the oppressors; Palestinians are the oppressed. End of story. This carries a strict imperative: If you want to be on the right side of history, you must always side with the oppressed. When viewed through this lens, the relevant question is not what happened, but who was involved and where their group ranks on the oppression ladder. A moral determination cannot be made without knowing the oppressor/oppressed status of all parties — identity trumps all other considerations. This framework appears to have taken over on college campuses across the United States and is reverberating in the wider culture.

On the Israeli side, I’ve observed a rigid narrative that takes an opposing stance. Israel is simply defending itself and doing what it must do after the barbaric attack. Hamas, elected by the Palestinians and receiving widespread support, is fully responsible for the destruction and death in Gaza. What’s more, Hamas deliberately uses the civilian population as human shields. This commonly cited rationale blames Hamas entirely for anything Israel does in response. There is significant reluctance to acknowledge the staggering Palestinian casualties and destruction in Gaza; sentiments range from apathy, to thinking no one in Gaza is innocent, and therefore, they all deserve what they have coming. Questions along the lines of, “What level of civilian suffering is justified on the road to achieving Israeli military aims?” are all but ignored. Even reasonable criticism of the Israeli campaign is met with derision and ridicule, often accompanied by accusations of antisemitism. I have witnessed a disconcerting lack of empathy and tendency for dehumanization of Palestinians among Israelis, and it manifests close to home. The attack has surfaced hardline, objectionable views among my immediate and extended family members in Israel. On a family call, I merely shared that I am pained for innocent lives lost on both sides of the conflict (including Gaza), which led to a falling out with an immediate family member.

There appears to be a widespread hardened attitude that cares little about the devastating toll in Gaza. A recent poll found that 80% of Israelis believe that the suffering of the civilian population should be given only a “very small” or “fairly small” extent of consideration when planning the continuation of fighting.[4] The Israeli media rarely covers the dire conditions; on the rare occasions it does express concern, it’s usually framed in terms of Israeli interests — for example, suggesting that disease control in Gaza is important primarily because it benefits Israeli war efforts.[5]

On a family call, I merely shared that I am pained for innocent lives lost on both sides of the conflict (including Gaza), which led to a falling out with an immediate family member.

I want to acknowledge that I’m making sweeping generalizations and simplifications, and there are obviously diverse perspectives in any given population. Undoubtedly, there is much more to be said concerning perspectives of the progressive left and the responses in Israel, not to mention sentiments on the Palestinian side. What I hope to have highlighted, however, is the propensity for black-and-white narratives. Many see the conflict in terms of pure good versus pure evil, reserving empathy for the “good guys,” dehumanizing the “bad guys” and tenaciously resisting all complicating factors.

Questioning Simplistic Narratives

In a Guardian article following the attack, Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari points out that “the same people can be both victims and perpetrators at the same time.”[6] This simple fact is lost in black-and-white narratives of good versus evil. To many on the progressive left, Palestinians are the clear victims, as they have been subject to decades of Israeli brutality and occupation and are enduring one of the most destructive bombing campaigns in recent history. To many Israelis and their supporters, Israelis are the clear victims, as Jews have been persecuted for millennia, and on Oct. 7 endured the worst massacre of Jews since the Holocaust. The reality, however, can be both; victimhood is not binary. This complicates the picture, and we tend not to like complicated pictures when the stakes are high. The comfort and certainty derived from our black-and-white stories are at the heart of what keeps them alive. Yet it is vital that we strive to resist the lure of simplicity as best we can.

Many see the conflict in terms of pure good versus pure evil, reserving empathy for the “good guys,” dehumanizing the “bad guys” and tenaciously resisting all complicating factors.

When evaluating our narratives, we should ask ourselves three key questions: First, “Is my narrative comfortable?”; second, “Is my narrative simple?”; and third, “Is my narrative conclusive?”

One of the most telling signs that our working models lack nuance when it comes to something as complex as Israel/Palestine are self-comforting stories. If the story I tell conveniently places me on the right side and prevents me from confronting difficult questions, I can be sure that something important is being lost. Staying attuned to this can allow us to navigate, consume and process information more skillfully. When instinctively rejecting a piece of information, pause and ask yourself: “If I’m being honest, why am I refusing to engage with this? What is at stake?” I have found that often what I come up with is “because it threatens my comfortable narrative.”

In the weeks and months after the attack, as I absorbed diverse perspectives, I began to question the prevailing Israeli narrative — that the IDF’s operation in Gaza is appropriately calibrated and justified — along with other aspects of Israeli doctrine on the conflict as a whole. These were uncomfortable questions, and I could feel the force of my previously held assumptions beckoning: “Come back to our warm embrace,” they whispered seductively. “You know how nice and cozy you feel in our presence.” This is not a personal failing, nor something to be ashamed of; we are all prone to this. Yet awareness of the mechanics at play can make a meaningful difference. Like exercising a muscle, over time it can become more habitual to stay open-minded in the face of challenging information.

Another thing to consider is whether our stories are simple. The fewer the moving parts, the less likely that we are in the realm of nuance. If my position on the current Gaza situation can be summed up in a sentence or two, I’m in trouble. Nuance requires concerted effort and cannot be arrived at haphazardly; my entire view should not fit in a slogan. The more we know about any given situation, the more its complexity becomes apparent.

The third question to ask is whether our current perspective is conclusive. How certain am I that this is the full picture? What would it take for me to change my mind? High levels of certainty, especially in tandem with a simple and comfortable narrative, should set off the alarm bells. Nuanced views tend to carry healthy levels of uncertainty and open-endedness. I need not end up confused about what I think in any given situation, although some confusion can be a positive sign of pursuing nuance. I’m not advocating for moral relativism or withholding all moral judgments. We can pick sides and should forcefully condemn certain things without qualification. Instead, I’m urging that we remain vigilant about the ways in which our overarching narratives become self-serving and one-sided. The thing to notice is that these three factors — comfort, simplicity, and certainty — sustain and reinforce one another. The good news is that pulling the thread on any one of them can gradually unravel the others.

You may be thinking, “Mike, is this really the appropriate time to be calling out black-and-white narratives while the war rages on? Surely, these are natural and common responses to deeply traumatizing events.”

I considered this question carefully before writing this piece and ultimately concluded that yes, now is the appropriate time. Millions of years of evolution have primed humans to be intensely social and tribal. We naturally form in-groups and out-groups, and it is during times of heated conflict that our stories become most consequential. Indeed, resorting to simple good versus evil narratives is at its height during times of war, we can easily come to view those outside our own group with suspicion, bias or outright hostility. Human history is an endless archive of this hardwired propensity. Though natural, it’s crucial to acknowledge and address its destructive consequences. While it can be challenging and uncomfortable to confront these tendencies in ourselves and others, more nuance is urgently called for on the road to common ground.




[4] https://en.idi.org.il/articles/51872



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